Hours after announcing that a defense lawyer had been appointed to represent the five as-yet-unnamed suspects in the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s contentious third and fourth cases, the court issued an abrupt about-face yesterday evening, saying this lawyer would not be recognized.
Cases 003 and 004, in which five people are suspected of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, are strongly opposed by the government. The cases were opened by prosecutors last year over the objections of Prime Minister Hun Sen as well as Cambodian pretrial judges and the court’s Cambodian co-prosecutor.
The tribunal’s Defense Support Section said in a statement yesterday afternoon that it had appointed Kong Sam Onn to represent the five suspects because the risk of prejudice to them was rising as an investigation into their alleged crimes progressed.
“The Unnamed Suspects in Cases 003 and 004 at the ECCC are at risk of being substantially affected as the Office of the Co-Investigating Judges conducts investigations for an indeterminate period of time…without defense scrutiny,” the DSS said.
However, Cambodian court spokesman Reach Sambath immediately said this statement “did not reflect the reality of what is happening at the court.”
“No suspects have been identified, and an investigation on the Cambodian side of the Office of Co-Investigating Judges did not take any action yet,” he said.
Mr Sambath added that because acting DSS chief Rupert Abbott was new, “he did not know everything in detail yet.”
Soon afterward, tribunal legal affairs spokesman Lars Olsen issued a statement saying that Mr Sam Onn would not be recognized by the court as a lawyer.
“The concept of assigning legal counsel to represent unnamed suspects in Cases 003 and 004 has explicitly been rejected by the co-investigating judges in September 2010 upon a request from the Defense Support Section,” he said.
This is not the first time that the schism within the court over the third and fourth cases has caused trouble for the tribunal’s office of public affairs.
After Mr Olsen confirmed in June that Cambodian co-investigating judge You Bunleng had signed a letter commencing investigation of the cases, the judge crossed out his signature and the court’s Cambodian spokesmen issued a late-night retraction.
In September, Judge Bunleng said he would reconsider his non-participation after discussing the issue with his new international counterpart, the German judge Siegfried Blunk, who is due to start work at the court today.
The aspiring defense lawyer, Mr Sam Onn, previously worked with the court to provide legal counsel to witnesses in last year’s war crimes trial of Kaing Guek Eav. He also represented SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua during her legal battle with Mr Hun Sen last year until stepping down under government pressure.
Mr Abbott could not be reached for comment after the court’s retraction, but earlier in the day he wrote in an e-mail that Mr Sam Onn would be available to advise the suspects upon request.
“Mr Sam Onn has not met with the Unnamed Suspects as far as he is aware, as we do not know who they are,” he added.
Public speculation about the identities of the five suspects has centered around Sou Met, commander of the Khmer Rouge air force, Meas Muth, commander of the regime’s navy, and Im Chem, a district chief who oversaw a dam construction project that killed thousands.